Ravi Shankar, who died on Tuesday, had an immense influence on Western music in the latter half of the twentieth century. He did more than anyone else to bring Hindustani music and Indian culture in general to Europe and America, and to present in a popular and accessible way. The traces of Indian modes and rhythms, and of the resonant, singing buzz and ringing, sympathetic drone of the sitar in particular, can be found across a broad spectrum of musical styles from the 50s onwards. It was through Shankar that Brian Jones and George Harrison took to twanging simple melodic accompaniments on the sitar, introducing an intoxicating new sound to pop on songs like Paint It Black and Norwegian Wood. Harrison had been introduced to Shankar’s music on record by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds, and it was also the derivation of the scattershot clusters of notes in their own brand of raga rock. Harrison, of course, went on to study briefly with Shankar, but never approached the level of mastery or dedication required of the serious Indian musician. He never lost his love of Indian music, though, and continued his relationship with Shankar, producing several of his recordings, including a handsome 1995 4-CD retrospective for his 75th birthday, In Celebration, which encompassed all aspects of Shankar’s playing and composing.
Shankar was introduced to many of the 60s hippie generation through his appearance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, recorded at generous length in the DA Pennebaker film which commemorates the epochal event. Shankar was granted his own afternoon slot, since any attempt to condense his music in between the folk pop of Simon and Garfunkel and the Mamas and Papas, and the guitar smashing and burning of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend in the evening would have been both pointless and disrespectful. It’s the thrilling interplay between Shankar’s rapidfire sitar runs and the intuitive responses of his regular tabla player Alla Rakha in the final jat section of raga they’re playing (Raga Bhimpalasi) that visibly wows the crowd. It was this aspect, along with the improvisatory nature of the music, which made him a favourite in the jazz world. John Coltrane, in particular, was a huge admirer, sufficiently so to name his son Ravi (and Ravi would later go on to meet his namesake). The influence of Shankar’s sound can be heard on pieces such as India, one version of which rides on a tamboura drone, and on the lengthy modal explorations of his many My Favourite Things excursions. These take their cue from Indian ragas in terms of extending the Western sense of appropriate (and endurable) duration well beyond the normal span, requiring new efforts of concentration. Coltrane’s duets with Elvin Jones on the likes of Impressions and Chasin’ the Trane also feel like a jazz variant on Shankar and Alla Rakha’s rhythmic byplay. This can also be heard in the lightspeed unison passages fired out by John McGlaughlin and Billy Cobham on the Mahavishnu Orchestra LPs The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire. McGlaughlin drew more directly on the Indian musical heritage in his acoustic group Shakti, in which he played alongside Indian musicians including Zakir Hussain, the son of Alla Rakha, and had a special acoustic guitar built with sympathetic strings stretched across the sound hole.
Ravi Shankar at Monterey Pop Festival, 1967The music of the minimalist composers La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass drew heavily on Indian music in the early 60s. Young’s drone pieces for his Theatre of Eternal Music environment, and Riley’s extended, tape-delay multiplied ‘phantom band’ improvisations on saxophone and organ were both inspired by Indian styles, and undoubtedly by hearing Shankar recordings. They both went on to study under the Indian vocal singer Pandit Pran Nath in the 70s, Young recording The Tambouras of Pandit Pran Nath in his honour, over an hour of hypnotic tamboura drone (great for improvising over). Glass met Shankar whilst in Paris in 1964, working as a session musician and transcriber in the studio where the latter was recording the score for the film Chappaqua. He always claims to have learnt a huge amount from Shankar in that short space of time, lessons which were formative in pointing to the slowly evolving additive rhythms and melodic spirals which were so central to his early music, and continue to be so to this day. Glass later collaborated with Shankar on a 1990 LP, Passages, which doesn’t show either at their best, amounting to a conventional chamber orchestrated dilution of both styles. Shankar also had an influence on the British folk scene, with several musicians incorporating the sitar alongside guitar and more traditional folk instruments to create a sound which is today generally known as psych folk. Mike Heron played the sitar on Incredible String Band songs such as Maya, There Is A Green Crown and Nightfall, and John Renbourn used it as an additional colour on Pentangle albums. The droning strings provide a weird, shimmering shadow to traditional songs like Once I Had A Sweetheart, Cruel Sister and House Carpenter, blending particularly well with the clipped notes of the banjo on the latter. The extended soloing and fluid, rapidly picked lines of the Grateful Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia, with their sliding blurs, also bear the hallmarks of Ravi’s influence (mixed in with a bit of bluegrass), Indian music having a particularly strong presence in the Bay Area. One of the Dead’s drummers, Mickey Hart, also played in various Indian and world rhythm orchestras, generally alongside Zakir Hussain, with the 1976 Diga Rhythm Band being a notably successful meeting of minds.
Ravi Shankar’s relationship with the hippies, and with the rock world in general as it grew into a mass marketed distillation of ‘countercultural’ values, was an ambivalent one. His association with George Harrison, and by extension with The Beatles, enabled him to introduce Indian classical music to an even wider, and younger audience. But he had no illusions about the fact that it was little more than a novel background sound for a lot of these new listeners. The sitar and tamboura drone is still synonymous for many with 60s psychedelic wooziness, an association with a brief moment in pop cultural history which does a considerable disservice to the centuries over which the music had been developed and refined into a complex and highly expressive artform on the Indian subcontinent. Shankar’s mixed feelings about the widespread adoption of Indian sounds as mood or head music in the 60s was perfectly summed up by his famous remarks at the Concert for Bangladesh which George Harrison organised in 1971. Shankar came on with his musicians, who settled down and looked at each other whilst sounding out a few single notes and tabla taps, making adjustments as necessary. When everything had been set up to their satisfaction, they fell silent in preparation for playing, only for the audience to burst into rapturous applause. ‘Thank you’, Shankar replied with measured sarcasm, ‘if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you enjoy the playing more’. Shankar also had great reservations about the hippie lifestyle. He disliked the drugs and the smoke-filled concert halls and the inability of some sections of the audience to appreciate to pay the music due respect and attention. If people really wanted to appreciate the music, and to gain an understanding of the culture from which it came, they needed to approach it in a proper mental and bodily state, he suggested. He was also no doubt sensitive to criticisms that he was sacrificing his art to commercial forces by playing to large rock crowds. Woodstock might have appeared as the apotheosis of the countercultural love generation for many, the point at which it became a ‘nation’, but for Shankar, who played there but didn’t appear in the film (even in subsequent bonus feature stuffed and additional performance appended directorial cut dvds), it marked the end of his engagement, his sympathy for its underlying ideals having run short. ‘I saw half a million people in the mud and rain’, he said. ‘No one was really in their right mind, and the music was just a background. That was the end; I promised I would never do that again’.
He was not an ascetic and saintly guru shying away from the base materialism of the world, mind you, nor did he ever claim to be. He was born in Varanasi on 7th April 1920 as Robindra Shankar Chowdhury. He adopted the name Ravi (meaning sun) in his 20s, as something more than just a stage name, although it also served that purpose well enough. He had a fairly privileged youth, particularly after he’d joined the renowned dance troupe of his elder brother Uday, with whom he travelled the world in luxurious style, acting as a background ‘chorus line’ dancer and playing various musical instruments in a cursory fashion. Uday was 20 years his senior, and must have been something of a father figure to him, particularly in the light of his own father’s almost total absence from his life (he didn’t even meet him until he was 8). He made his debut recording in 1937 with his brother’s troupe on an LP with the snappy title The Original Uday Shankar Company of Hindu Musicians Recorded During Its Historic Visit to the United States. He wasn’t playing sitar at this time, however. The momentous decision to take up the instrument came a year later in 1938. He had been encouraged to do so by the sarod master Allauddin Khan, who had been touring with the dance company. He went to study with Khan in the small Bengali village of Maihar, which was also the name of the gharana, or musical school, with which Khan was associated. Also studying with him was Khan’s son Ali Akbar Khan. Indian music has always been a dynastic affair, a tradition which Shankar furthered by teaching his daughter Anoushka to play the sitar, playing alongside her in numerous concerts in his latter years. His tabla player Alla Rakha also taught his son Zakir Hussain to play, and he has gone on to perform in a wide variety of musical set ups, from traditional Indian classical concerts to Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s world percussion ensembles and John McGlauglin’s Shakti Indian groups. Ali Akbar Khan would grow to become an acknowledged master of the sarod like his father. The sarod is a lute with a metallic neck (all the better for sliding notes) and a dry, non-resonant sound which offers a complete contrast to the sitar’s reverberant strings. Shankar wanted to play the sarod at first, but Khan wisely suggested that he would be better suited to the sitar. He would go on to play many duets (or jugalbandi) with Ali Akbar Khan, including the performance at the Concert for Bangladesh, and the lp recordings Master Musicians of India (1964) and the Apple-released In Concert (1972), a performance which took place shortly after Allaudin Khan’s death and was dedicated to his memory. Sadly, the two fell out in the 1980s, which brought their memorable and cherished collaborations to an end.
Shankar collaborated with a wide and disparate group of musicians over the years, bringing many musical styles and traditions together, to varying degrees of fruitfulness. Fusion is inherent to the northern Hindustani classical styles, anyway, emerging as it did in the 13th century with the advent of the Mughal Empire, which introduced influences from the Islamic world to the purer Hindu religious forms. These persisted in the south, forming a distinct stream known as Karnatic music. Shankar united the two by playing with musicians from the Karnatic tradition. He worked with West Coast jazz musicians on a couple of tracks on the 1962 LP Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali (which I remember getting out of the library way back in my teenage years, when it still had records), refugees from the Stan Kenton and Chico Hamilton bands: Bud Shank on flute, Dennis Budimir on guitar, Louis Hayes on drums, and future Keith Jarrett trio bassist Gary Peacock. He duetted with Yehudi Menuhin, whom he had first met in Delhi in 1952, on the popular 1966 West Meets East LP (and its follow ups), the violinist proving stiff and inflexible, unable to adjust his classical technique to the fluid vocal lines essential for Indian music (for which the voice is the source of all sound). East also met further East on the 1978 LP East Greets East (those titles never avoided the obvious), on which he collaborated with players of the traditional Japanese flute and zither, the shakuhachi and the koto. He also composed and played on several soundtracks, beginning with the lovely folk themes played on sitar and flute which he provided for Satyajit Ray’s 1960 portrait of Bengali village life Pather Panchali. Variations of these can be found on that 1962 LP Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali (a good record to start with if you want to get into Shankar’s music in all its variety). He also wrote and performed parts of the music for the 1968 film Charly, an adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ affecting SF novel of artificially enhanced human intelligence Flowers for Algernon. His music for Jonathan Miller’s 1966 TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is particularly successful in creating an atmosphere of sun-dazed drowsiness, imbuing the English gardens, meadows and decaying buildings in which he sets the story with the hazy, surreal quality of a half-waking state. Shankar’s Alice music was a particular favourite of Trish Keenan from the band Broadcast.
Shankar has something of a connection to the South West and Devon through the Dartington Hall Estate, a rural social, educational and artistic endeavour set up by Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst in the 1920s. Leonard Elmhirst had been a close friend of and personal assistant to the towering figure of Bengali (and Indian as a whole) literature. Tagore was a tremendous influence on Shankar and many other artists of his generation. The Elmhirsts’ experience of Indian culture proved an inspiration for many aspects of the integrated rural enterprise which they worked to create and sustain. As a result, Indian music and art has always found a home there. Shankar’s brother Uday’s dance troupe visited in 1934 for a performance and short teaching session. He returned several further times in the 30s, brother Ravi present for some of the visits, including a longer six-month residency in 1936. In the light of these connections, Shankar returned at various intervals to perform in the old medieval great hall, the last time being in 2004.
Ravi and Anoushka Shankar at the 2005 PromsI was lucky enough to get to see him perform during the 2005 Proms in the Albert Hall. His daughter Anoushka played lead in the first half performance of his Concerto for Sitar and Orchestra, a piece first recorded by Ravi with Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1971. It’s a light but colourful work, sounding a bit like the kind of 50s and early 60s exotica which plundered sound and rhythms from around the world, shaking them together with lush orchestrations to produce a gaudy but sometimes quite tasty cocktail – an odd reversal of the process in this case, making the authentic sound ersatz through the addition of Western colourations and musical structures. In the second half, he took to the stage with Anoushka, and the two duetted on a raga which lasted a little under an hour. I was close enough to smell the incense which burned on the stage, to the side of the carpet upon which they sat. This was one of a series of concerts he gave with Anoushka in his 85th year. His age wasn’t apparent as he played with typical sensitivity and agility, and the scalar patterns he threw back and forth with his daughter in the rhythmic jat section were as thrilling as ever in their melding of musical minds. I definitely felt in the presence of a legend. Anoushka Shankar now remains to carry on his legacy and nurture and develop the musical traditions which her father did so much to bring to the world through another generation.